In the pantheon of post-colonial writers, V.S. Naipaul will always have an important place
Is it possible to set a writer apart from his politics? That question is central to understand Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul and those who read him
Encomiums will no doubt emerge, from many writers and readers across the world, mourning the passing of Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, the Trinidad-born Nobel Prize winner who died at 85 on Saturday. Sir Vidia had a long literary life, which took him to all parts of the world and he cast his unsparing eye on everything he saw—from dictators in Africa and Latin America, fundamentalists in India and the Muslim world, to cricket fields and Republican Party conventions and the American South, as he tried to make sense of the world around him in prose that most readers considered stylistically outstanding, but which contained ideas that perpetuated the prejudices of many and mystified and hurt just as many.
Born in 1932 in Trinidad, child of Indian immigrants who struggled to set themselves up in a colonial society, Naipaul was aware of his roots, of indentured labour because British reforms had ended the more blatant form of slavery in Africa, but needed a subtler version of it at plantations elsewhere. His father Seepersad wanted to become a writer, and Naipaul himself saw writing as a noble calling and yearned to leave the small island. In A House for Mr Biswas, Naipaul described his father as inadequate, lonely but unassailable.
A scholarship took him to an island bigger in influence—England—as he came to Oxford University where he would meet Patricia Hale, who would become his wife, letting go of her dream of becoming an actor to help him find his voice. He was determined to prove that the twice-removed immigrant would embrace the language in all its peculiarities and shades, and use it so well that the English—ever reluctant to let others into their hallowed circles—would grudgingly admit him. He recounts that time vividly in The Enigma of Arrival (1987). His ruthless assessment of “half-made societies” as he saw colonies, and pronouncements, such as “Africa has no future”, endeared him to the ruling classes, and his observations reinforced their own perspective of how the world was and why the empire had a benign influence only made him more acceptable. He may not have been an establishmentarian, but he hated radicals enough that, arguably, he was an antidisestablishmentarian. He was unquestionably a master of the style, and had the remarkable gift of finding the right words to make his point in elegant prose. His early fiction was profound in helping the reader understand not only the linear narrative but the broader universe surrounding the story.
This is not to suggest that Naipaul was a spokesman only for a nostalgic generation that yearned for a glorious past. In fact, he spoke only for himself; he didn’t necessarily want approval, but like many writers who have acquired a certain stature, enjoyed the company of other writers who reminded him how great he was. Naipaul was pithy; he turned a certain type of misanthropy, which could often be cruel and was often misogynist, into something that might resemble high art, and what many saw as his rudeness was masked by his erudition and sharp pen, with delightful turns of phrases, sharply-drawn characters, and well-plotted novels (particularly the early ones), which made the underlying philosophy more acceptable.
Naipaul has been praised for his acute observation, but it was Patrick French who explained how he went about doing his work, in his brutally frank biography, The World is What It Is (2008). French wrote: “During his journey through India, Vidia would hone the technique he was to use in his subsequent non-fiction writing: he found experienced local journalists to guide him, took whatever assistance or hospitality was available, interviewed people in great detail, linked what he had discovered to his existing ideas about the country, and wrote up the results fast.”
In the pantheon of post-colonial writers, Naipaul will always have an important place, even though he hated terms such as post-colonial writing and would probably resent the writers he was being bracketed with. His literary life spread on a vast canvas, scattered across continents (he went to East Africa, Cote d’Ivoire and Congo when few dared), reflecting on the colonial rule, the political and intellectual responses to it, the early hopes of nationhood, and the inevitable disappointments that followed. He was pessimistic of countries that saw their identities only in terms of flags, currencies, airlines, and airports, and when things went south, as they inevitably did, he looked on magisterially, saying, “I told you so.” He described elections in developing countries as referendums among tribes, because he saw tribal identities to be stronger than pan-nationalistic aspirations. But he was never the only one to say so, nor necessarily the most original.
Naipaul was not sympathetic towards his subjects—you don’t have to be, but with greater empathy, he would have been a more nuanced writer. But he believed he had reached the pinnacle. Just as he once said women couldn’t write novels, he thought poorly of most of his male contemporaries as well.
The feelings were mutual—Derek Walcott, the other Caribbean Nobel Laureate, called him “V.S. Nightfall” once; C.L.R. James, another great writer from the Caribbean, acutely said, “Naipaul is saying what the whites want to say but dare not. They have put him up to it.”
Paul Theroux, who once admired Naipaul, then fell out spectacularly and wrote a scathing account of their relationship in Sir Vidia’s Shadow, calling him “a grouch, a skinflint, tantrum-prone, with race on his brain,” would later make up with him. At the Jaipur Literature Festival a few years ago, they could be seen talking warmly to each other, even doing a session together, looking like reconciled mates. And then there was Edward Said, who saw him as “a kind of belated Kipling [who] carries with him a kind of half-stated but finally unexamined reverence for the colonial order”.
The leitmotif of Nissim Ezekiel’s long review of Naipaul’s 1964 discover of India, An Area of Darkness, was “rubbish, Mr Naipaul.” Ezekiel simply could not see the India Naipaul described—not because it didn’t exist, but because it was an incomplete portrait, like a series of photographs with sharp focus, losing the landscape around, or more important, the context in which statements were made. That said, his second book about the country, India: A Wounded Civilisation, was a rather accurate account of what the Emergency had done to India—cruelly reminding the country how its borrowed institutions—the press, the parliament and the judiciary, had remained borrowed, and how the civilisation lacked the intellectual means to cope with its inadequacies. Unsurprisingly, when he returned to the theme with his third book, India: A Million Mutinies Now in 1990, he saw in the tumult the kind of resurgence and exuberance India should be proud of. He accurately described the rise of Hindu nationalism—he saw it as something positive for the nation to rediscover its identity, even going to the extent of describing the destruction of the BabriMasjid two years later as “inevitable retribution”.
Is it possible to set a writer apart from his politics? That question is central to understand Naipaul and those who read him. Do we overlook the frailties of Picasso, Woody Allen, and Mozart, because Guernica, Annie Hall, and the 40th Symphony are works unparalleled brilliance? Separating a man from his art is difficult in Naipaul’s case because so much of one affects the other. He didn’t care what others thought of him when he was alive; he wouldn’t be interested in what the world thinks of him now. With his knighthood, the Nobel Prize, and other honours from around the world, he lived a rich life, leaving behind an astonishing range of books which tell us as much about him as about the world he saw.
He began his 1979 novel set in Africa, A Bend In The River: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” In such a world, Naipaul built himself from the material he had—his identity, his talents, his understanding of his past—and entered through the exclusive corridors of a society that was reluctant to admit coloured writers in, and ensured a permanent place for himself.